BY JON LAMBERSON
Last Wednesday, British Broadcasting Corporation Director-General Greg Dyke spoke to a standing room only crowd at the Harvard Business School on “The Media’s Role in the War Against Iraq” in an event sponsored by the Consortium on Global Leadership, a student group with members from the Law School, HBS, and the Kennedy School of Government.
Dyke spent most of his time examining the role of the BBC in the current conflict. However his words implicitly, and at times explicitly, drew sharp contrasts between the BBC and the U.S. media.
The presentation started on a somber note when Dyke informed the group that a BBC cameraman had been lost that day after stepping on a land mine in Iraq. “It’s pretty scary,” said Dyke. “Sometimes our journalists are a bit gung ho…But it’s very dangerous, this war.”
Dyke continued by noting that the BBC audience, in America as well as abroad, had grown substantially since the start of the war in Iraq. The BBC News website was receiving twice the number of page views from the United States, and he stated that they had received hundreds of comments from Americans thanking the BBC for its impartial coverage.
Despite an increasing U.S. audience, Dyke felt that “most Americans don’t get the BBC.” He stated that while the BBC is publicly funded, they are neither state controlled nor propagandist. “Trust is the foundation of the BBC,” said Dyke, and he explained that trust means they attempt to be free from both government and commercial interests.
Dyke brought several video clips with him to emphasize his points. One clip which began to draw out the differences between the U.S. media and the BBC was an interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The BBC reporter sharply questioned Rumsfeld on the role of the U.S. in supplying Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons in the 1980s, as well as Rumsfeld’s trip to Iraq to meet with Hussein. Rumsfeld was taken aback — his face took on a countenance which can only be described as disdainful, and he went so far as to ask the reporter whether he was attacking him personally.
Dyke would later make clear what was implicit in the clip: he felt that the U.S. media would not ask questions critical of the administration in times of war, and even if they did ask difficult questions they would not followup. “At times of crisis we believe our duty is to the audience, not the government,” said Dyke. He stated that the BBC tries to reflect its audience, noting that in Britain the country is “genuinely split” over the war in Iraq and that the BBC would “report dissent as we find it.”
Dyke concluded by saying that he felt there was a genuine desire for impartial news coverage in America. He said he was surprised at American reporters who talk about their patriotic duty, surprised when the largest U.S. radio group is being used for pro-war rallies, surprised that Fox News continues to flourish even though it provides news that many view as slanted, and surprised at the easy ride given by many interviewers.
Dyke said that impartiality is what the BBC is about, yet in America that kind of impartiality would be unpatriotic. He noted that when Walter Cronkite questioned the Vietnam war, middle America also began to have doubts. He concluded by wondering if Walter Cronkite would feel as free to depart from his network’s views today.